NaNoWriMo ’19: Appalachian Dynasty

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction

Synopsis

William “Bill” Strong is born to a poor family in Dorset during the English Civil Wars. After losing his parents, 11-year-old Bill is sold as an indentured servant to a wealthy tobacco merchant and sent to Virginia to work off his servitude. After working for 8 years, Bill settles in Virginia as a poor tenet to yet another wealthy landlord.

Appalachian Dynasty follows his descendants through their mountains and valleys of poverty and privilege tracking their journey from farmers in southern England to coal miners in Southeastern Kentucky. Epitomizing the stereotype of a poor white family, Bill Strong and his descendants struggle against systematic forces designed to pit poor whites against people of color to ensure their loyalty during the Civil War, suffrage, and the Civil Rights movement, all while being exploited for their labor, land, and integrity. They learn they can never escape the sovereignty of wealthy men.

Loosely based on my own exploration of my family’s genealogy and settlement in southeastern Kentucky.

A novel in four parts-323 years-9 generations

  • Part 1: Divine Right of Kings (~1645-1776)
  • Part 2: For God and Country (~1777-1865)
  • Part 3: Us v. Them (~1866-1920)
  • Part 4: Can You Hear the Canary’s Song? (~1921-1973)

Goal: 90,000 words

Deadline: November 30, 2019

Coal Fired Lives

Buckets of coal,

cast iron stove,

indelibly stained

the palm of my hand.

 

Firing the blood

that runs in my veins,

the vein of descent

from coal mines.

 

Black dust lined

lung linings,

buried alive,

bulldozed remembrance.

 

Long winter nights

around the stove,

the cracking of coal

our lullaby.

To Childhood Heathens Who Grew Up

Frost rimes the trees like the Queen Anne’s Lace that grew alongside the holler roads in June,

on the hazy afternoons when we had no place to be, no ends in sight, on the winding one-lane, old paved roads where we took flight.

Bike pedals slapping shin bones when we hit the hills just right,

free descent, lungs too strained for our squeals of delight,

we have always been wild and strange

creatures who wandered the Appalachian hills but sought a broader horizon.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia: Book Review and Hillbilly Elegy Comparison

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

Publisher’s Summary

In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America’s “forgotten tribe” of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to for Appalachians. The book offers a must-needed insider’s perspective on the region.

The Review

The Appalachians Can Save Themselves

Elizabeth Catte is an East Tennessee native, with a Ph.D. in public history, which she received from Middle Tennessee State University, and co-owns a historical consulting company. Not only is she professionally suited to write about the state of the Appalachian region today in relation to the history that fed our current issues, but she is a native and is intimate with the struggles of the residents in the poor, coal region of the Appalachians.

This book was short, a quick read, and that is really my only criticism and the reason this book is 4 stars instead of 5. I would have loved a longer book so she could go into greater detail on some of the topics she discusses. However, I understand the need to publish her book quickly on the tail of Hillbilly Elegy so that she could capitalize on its success and the conversation it ignited. It is incredibly difficult to get the mainstream media and average American to care about subjects such as this or be receptive to correcting inaccurate and painful stereotypes that Vance invoked in his disturbingly bestselling memoir.

An Intelligent Woman’s Worth is Far Above Rubies

As a historian and history consultant, Catte knows her history of the region and is a credible source for relaying that information to her readers. She takes the responsibility, where Vance negligently fell short, of setting the stage of Appalachia as it was developed through the years. Catte talks about the industries that took from the region, the evolution of local workers’ rights and struggles through this time, and most importantly, the assertion that Appalachia (as an immense region) is not wholly Scots-Irish or white.

She accurately describes the diversity of the region. Catte aligns Appalachian needs with modern issues. She shuts down the notion of Other that so many paint Appalachians, that they genetically differ from the rest of the nation. We don’t. To paint us that way, Catte explains, is to promote eugenics (“the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”-From Dictionary.com). The idea of preventing the breeding of Appalachians through sterilization was promoted by prominent spokespeople from the area and beyond during the 1960s-70s. Eugenics was a favored idea of Nazis, FYI.

4/5 Stars

Hillbilly Elegy Versus What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Catte’s book is obviously a direct and scathing rebuttal to J. D. Vance’s Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. That is critical in understanding her position while writing this book. I felt similarly enraged and misrepresented after reading Vance’s “memoir.” When reading his memoir, I felt somebody local to the region needed to step up and refute his claims. A better person could not have stepped up to the plate. I will thank God every day for women like Elizabeth Catte and her little (enormously important) book.

Vance’s Shallow Take Versus Catte’s Research

The historical perspective she frames in this book is so important. She discusses Appalachia, coal mining, employment in the areas coal mining has left economically destroyed and/or stagnant. She references the greater discussion of white insecurity in America at the moment. So often you hear the cliched phrase, “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Nowhere is that phrase more chilling and pertinent than this book. Catte exposes the similarities in moments in our local history that do seem to repeat themselves and will continue to do so while these images and beliefs about Appalachians exist.

Appalachia: An Exploited Region & People

Catte explores the role of activism in Appalachia. She studies the tactics corporations and politicians used to undermine those activists and their message. Catte is honest about race in the region. She discusses the history of racism white Appalachians played a part in. Vance tried to absolve us of any blame which is grossly historically inaccurate. She relates several documented instances which inform her position on this. But Catte does absolve the region of its accused blinding whiteness. People of color do occupy Appalachia. POC share the history of the region. They struggled alongside white Appalachians in the coal mines, on the railroad, farming. Diversity exists here where outsiders insist it does not. They subsequently try to erase the ownership of the region of people of color, the lives they’ve built, and the inroads of progress they’ve made.

Vance excludes people of color from his memoir when discussing his beloved “hillbillies.” He repeatedly refers to the Scots-Irish ancestry of the region. He falsely claims Appalachians have retained that genetic heritage more than any other community in the nation. Catte astutely accuses him of racist generalizations by erasing people of color from the region and culture. She also references the settlement of French, German, English, Swedish, Scandinavian, Dutch, etc. in the area. She shreds his tendency to favor the eugenics theory. He implies that the shortcomings of Appalachians are a result of shared, flawed genetics.

His book, when viewed through this lens, should scare the shit out of us. We are not genetically different from the rest of the nation though the notion is so widely shared by outsiders. Eugenicists from the outside considered forced sterilization to limit our population in the past. Because corporate interest is such a powerful force with our government at all levels.

Vance’s Unscientific Claims About Appalachians

Catte goes further in her accusations against Vance’s theories. She calls out his preference for sources favored by white supremacist and nationalist individuals. Vance references eugenics theory and practice, “brain drain.” He praises the proud Scots-Irish genealogy. These should all be viewed as red flags for his priorities. Especially as there is no doubt he will run for a political office in the next five years.

K.O.!

Overall, her authority shines through and makes Vance’s novel and theories pale in comparison. Vance lacks viable research. Vance lacks insight into the sociopolitical structure of the Eastern Kentucky area he references repeatedly. His insistence on their (consequently his) genetic purity really expose him for what he is. Vance is a politically ambitious, pseudo-intellectual with white supremacist tendencies.

Even more stark after reading Catte’s response is the insincerity of Vance’s assertions. Vance claims writing his memoir did not mean he intended to be a spokesperson for the poor, white working class. Yet he continues to tour and speak on the topic. He published a book on the subject knowing very, very little of the truth behind the struggles in the region. Vance intended to capitalize on national insecurities using Appalachians to justify white insecurity and nationalist trends. This attempt is glaringly obvious when read in conjunction with Catte’s rebuttal.

In short, read What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, not Hillbilly Elegy.

Valley & Sky

My name is Sky. Judith, my stepmother, said that is because my mother gave birth to me in the yard under the summer midafternoon sky, the kind where rifted white clouds skimmed the highest reach of the Heavens. Lacking imagination for a decent Christian name she had muttered, “Sky,” when asked for a name for the skinny, white-haired baby the midwife handed her before she promptly fainted.
My mother was not a strong woman. She was always thin, bone edges protruding from the angles of her body, her collarbone a shelf for her neck and head. Childbirth seemed to steal what little life force she had. I was the oldest. My little brother came next, named Dusk, signifying the time of day he entered the world. And my youngest sibling, a sister called Valley, was the youngest and the one who stole my mother’s last breath, releasing it in a sigh as Valley took her very first gulp of mountain air, then promptly screamed, startling the birds from their trees where they had settled during the unusually quiet labor.
Maybe because of my name, or by some intuition of my mother’s, I have always been entranced by the sky. I have watched it lighten in the early dawn, pale in the waning evening. I have tracked the scuttle of clouds from storms ripped to shreds and blown by the wind. I can trace the years passed by my impressions of the sky.

***

My feet had gone numb minutes ago, curled over the bar of the chair legs I sat hunched in. They were bare, they usually were. Shoes were a commodity this far in the country, and her Daddy would only buy us one pair a year, usually more often trading for them, whatever cheap, canvas lined things he could find that would barely survive the winter slogs through shin-high snow and boggy mud to get to the schoolhouse 5 miles away. I was used to numb feet.
What I wasn’t accustomed to was watching my sister staring lifelessly outside, brown eyes that once glistened with spirit now half shuttered by pale, blonde lashes and roguishly red cheeks. Too red for her lack of vitality and splotched from her cheekbones to her collarbone where the quilt sagged to reveal a brittle frame.
Valley’s tiny body lay still under the ratty quilts. Her face was angled towards the window, her jaw a sharp, white line against the dirt-stained fabric.
In the hills, everything was dirty, but nobody seemed to mind. The dirt was our link to nature, and nature our inheritance from God. When you didn’t have a lot, you made what you did have a blessing.
There was a chill in the air, even inside the cabin, fall had come to call and wasn’t waiting for us to open the door. Our coal stove sat in a corner unused, dusty, black with the soot of fires past. Valley didn’t have the strength to light it. I didn’t have the heart.